James 2:1–9; Mark 8:27–33
I think the Letter of James is my favorite non-Pauline letter and may be my favorite New Testament letter all around. It is one of the Catholic epistles, those letters that were addressed not to a local church or an individual but to the whole Church. I like it because it really lives up to the name “Catholic” in its teaching. Martin Luther was tempted to drop James from his canon, calling it the “epistle of straw.” Traditionally, this letter is attributed to James the brother of the Lord, most likely the Apostle James the Less. We would call him a cousin of Jesus. Aramaic had no word for cousin, and the Semitic usage carried over into the Greek of the time. So here’s Luther who wants to toss out a book written by an apostle, a relative of Jesus, and the leader of the Church of Jerusalem because he’s somehow a better authority on what gospel Jesus preached. Luther didn’t like James because it taught thoroughly Catholic theology, but in the end he had to leave it be.
The letter notes the sinfulness of partiality when dealing with fellow Christians—favoring those with wealth and giving less honor to those who are poor. As someone who tends toward more conservative political ideology, I can’t help but feel a bit convicted when James points this out. It’s too easy to jump to conclusions about people based in their dress. If I’m honest with myself, I can see that there is a bias operating, even implicitly, in the way that we treat those who have greater means.
Of course, there’s injustice against the poor on both ends of our political spectrum. From the other end we usually hear directed at our Church the charge of hypocrisy for holding so much wealth in the form of art and architecture. These churches, some say, should be sold off and the food given to the poor. The people who utter such things forget that our beautiful churches and cathedrals belong to the poorest and the wealthiest together. Where else can a homeless person go to spend time in silence and warmth in such opulence without being harassed? Inadvertently, these people would rob those for whom they claim to advocate.
The real problem is that we are not looking at the poor as people. We see them as a problem. We see the man holding the sign, and we might respond in several ways. Some of us fumble around in our pockets and pull out a dollar or two to give him. Some of us look right past him, refuse to make eye contact, and act like he isn’t there. Both responses fail to see that there is a man standing there. They see a homeless man standing there. We encapsulate the man in his circumstances, and maybe we choose to address the circumstances around the man. But are we addressing the man?
In a way, that’s really what James is talking about—our common tendency to look superficially at each other and to neglect the human person standing before us. We forget that each of us has dignity as a rational creature and a child of God. We forget that that man right there has a name.
Within our own church, we can extend this to so many subgroups: people with special needs, single adults, and minorities of different types. When we come to this altar to receive the body and blood of Christ, do we see the other people here as our brothers and sisters? As our neighbors whom we are to love as ourselves? Do we recognize how this sacrament joins us to each other and makes us sharers in the same dignity? Is it just “Jesus and me,” or are we truly the body of Christ?
I want to suggest a positive action for you. The next time you see someone holding a sign, go get a sandwich or something and take it to him or her, and then ask them for their name. Introduce yourself. Talk with them for a minute or two. Notice how completely this changes the dynamic between the two of you because you have stopped looking at this person’s circumstances and have seen and acknowledged the person. How much easier it will be, then, to look at our fellow parishioners and see them as our family in this body of Christ.